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Gasparotto: ‘You need brains to win Amstel Gold Race’

Winner of two editions says latest course design brings Dutch race to monument status.

If Tom Boonen is forever associated with Paris-Roubaix, and Peter Sagan with the rainbow jersey, then Enrico Gasparotto will be linked with Amstel Gold Race.

The veteran Italian-Swiss rider won two editions, finished third two more times, and punched into the top-10 on three more occasions.

It’s a race that suits his puncheur style and tactical style of racing to a T. For Gasparotto, who now lives near Lugano, the Dutch classic is one of the most challenging and engaging races on the calendar.

“Amstel Gold Race is a very different kind of race,” he told VeloNews. “The skills you need to have in that kind of classic is handling the bike. The roads are really small, twisting, and not straight at all. You need to have to use the brain to win this race.”

Gasparotto, 38, would have been racing this weekend at Amstel Gold Race before coronavirus put the brakes on the international racing calendar. Along with the Ardennes classics, this upcoming block of racing is one of the season highlights for the NTT Racing captain.

This year would have been his 12th career start. He’s raced and performed well in all three of the latest course designs for the Dutch classic.

Organizers tweaked the finish to spice up the action. In 2003, the finish line was moved from the flats near Maastricht to the top of the emblematic Cauberg. In 2013, the finish line was moved just under 2km past the hill, the same finish of the 2012 world championships. There were more changes in 2017, with a new finishing circuit that Gasparotto says completely changed the dynamic of the race.

“Above all, with the new final circuit, it opens the race to different situations,” Gasparotto said in a telephone interview. “You need to be clever, try to use the brain even if you lack the oxygen in the brain when your ‘a bloc.’ There is a lot of change of rhythm during the day from kilometer zero to end.”

Gasparotto went away with Michael Valgren on the way to his 2016 Amstel win. Photo: Getty / Tim De Waele

Here’s what Gasparotto had to say about the unique challenges and tactical playbook for a classic named after a beer:

VN: What makes Amstel Gold Race stand out or different from other races on the calendar?
EG: The key of understanding Amstel Gold are the narrow roads. The roads are very special there. They are very narrow, and there isn’t one stretch that is straight for very long. There is a lot of tension in the group. We are constantly turning left, right, right and left. With experience you know when you can find a few moments where you can rest in the middle of bunch.

VN: Do the narrow roads change the tactics on how it’s raced compared to the nearby Ardennes classics?
EG: Positioning is very important in this race, and now more so with the new finishing circuit. From a certain point on it’s important to stay at the front. In these kinds of races the rider needs to be ready, even if he’s a leader, to take the wind in the face, to pass through the tricky situations at the front of the race. That means you have to spend some energy and though you would rather be saving for the next climb, you run the risk you might miss out. You need to finish the race completely tired, and that means it’s a proper race. If you’re don’t finish completely exhausted, it means you didn’t leave it all out on the road.

VN: What are the keys to winning Amstel Gold Race?
EG: It is a very punchy and explosive race. You must be an expert bike-handler. You must use your head in this race, because it is very tactical. And you must have a very strong, explosive kick. That is why this is the perfect race for Philippe Gilbert.

VN: You’ve raced on all three versions of the race, how have the tactics changed?
EG: My 2012 win and other podium finish the race ended at the top of the Cauberg. When I won in 2016, it was like it was in the worlds. In 2018, when I was third, it’s the course it is now with the new finishing circuit. The race has changed completely. Before there were two or three critical points, and then everyone knew you had to be at the front for the Cauberg. Now any move with 50km to go can be the winning move. You have to be attentive and be ready to jump if the attacks start to come.

The 1.2km, 6 percent Cauberg climb dominated the finale of the race for many years. Photo: Getty / Tim De Waele

VN: Many have applauded the new finishing circuit, what’s your opinion after racing it a few times?
EG: What I liked most was the finish on top of Cauberg. It was ideal for me, to save everything for the final acceleration. At the same time, if I put myself on the organizers, with the finish like it is now, I realize they did the right thing. It is a reflection of how cycling is changing. I understand how before it could seem boring because it was a steady race until the end, even if it is very hard. Now that I am older, I can reflect on things more, and I appreciated they are trying to keep spectacle in the race. For those reasons, they made the changes on the final circuit, they are right.

VN: What are the tactics in the new final circuit?
EG: The race now opens up pretty far from the finish. That’s when the race becomes more interesting. It is now much more like a cobblestone race, where the real race opens up earlier. The organizers were clever in that regard. Before it was a question of marking the strong guys and saving for the Cauberg. That’s why it was a perfect race for me. Now many more guys can win. Any move with 50km to go can be the winning move. It’s much more fascinating.

VN: Your win in 2012 was a big moment for you, but how emotional was your victory in 2016, when raced with Wanty-Groupe Gobert and the death of Antoine Demoitié at Gent-Wevelgem?
EG: That was emotional because it came after such a hard period for the team, not just for me, but the entire team. To lose our teammate was such a big shock. We didn’t know if it was best to stop or to race. We decided as a group the best way to honor him was to keep racing. So that I could win Amstel Race two weeks later made that victory so special. Today I can cry when I think about those emotions. I am not so emotional, but to relive that moment is so special. I am still in contact with Wanty, with his wife, and we created a kind of energy around all of those moments. It is was something very special.

VN: What was your worst edition?
EG: Last year. That was the worst performance of my career at that race. One of my best was in 2018. I didn’t win, but I had attacked with 50km to go, and I was fighting at the front for the win until 200m to go, and finish third on the podium. The way I raced that year is what I like to remember, not last year.

VN: What was so bad about 2019 for you?
EG: I got dropped when Alaphilippe attacked, and never saw the front again. I had a kind of mental burn out, because I put a lot pressure on myself. We were not doing well as a team, I felt good at Brabantse Pijl. I was dreaming to drop everyone and arrive alone. With my experience, I am a person who thinks a lot about everything, and I like to use my brain to win races. I think that day I thought too much. Three days later I was top-10 at Flèche Wallonne, so I was bit blocked during the race in my head. This is an example that you never stop learning in cycling.

VN: What’s your opinion of Mathieu van der Poel’s victory last year at Amstel Gold?
EG: From my point of view, what he did last year was something beyond words. It was really, really amazing. That’s why we love racing! Alaphilippe and Fuglsang were thinking they could have time to play on the final, and they were surprised to see Van der Poel come back. What he did last year was just incredible.

VN: How do the riders consider Amstel Gold Race? Is it as important as the monuments?
EG: It is a kind of monument. The length is like that of a monument. They have the history, and it always delivers a big winner. I think it is only missing the title of monument. I am a real fan of the types of World Cup races. I grew up watching these big one-day races — Plouay, Zurich, Hamburg, the cobblestones, the Ardennes. These are the mythic races of cycling.